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Designing like you’re there: What I learned using VR for architecture

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In 2013, I was working on the Xiqu Centre for Chinese Opera in West Kowloon, China, with the architectural theater planning consultancy Fisher Dachs Associates alongside Bing Thom Architects. This space was curvy—curvy beyond nearly any project we had done, and changes were coming fast. Today the balcony railing swept, wave-like, seamlessly into the side seating pods. The next day the crest of the wave had subtly shifted, abandoning the seating pods but shifting the rest of the balcony with it. Was our seat count changing? Were the sightlines from the seats to the stage being drastically impaired? Keeping up with it all was a challenge, and neither our 3D model nor any 2D drawings of the design seemed to be enough to fully communicate our recommendations to our collaborators.

Enter VR. Many of the seats in the hall were difficult to evaluate not only because of the rapid design changes, but because the curved nature of the theater meant people, seats, railings, and various architectural elements were in danger of obstructing a wide range of views. We used 2D views to check seating configurations (front to back, perpendicular, and various leaning options), but our takeaways from these studies were limited. As soon as we put the design of the theater in VR, we could test these configurations in real time and, most importantly, physically lean our bodies. By measuring where the location of the balcony railing would be, we could mock this up ourselves and accurately get a sense of the limits of leaning in terms of audience comfort. Did the viewer have to lean into their neighbor’s lap to see, or just tilt their head a bit? Now we could tell. This in turn fed our recommendations back to the architects, enabling them to make better decisions about the design of the hall.

Bing Thom Architects saw the benefit too. Principal Venelin Kokalov describes the benefit as such: “We understood the space in an entirely new way. It was one thing to be rotating around a 3D model. It was entirely something else to see the project at exactly the scale the audience would perceive it after construction.”

As a designer, it was lovely to see how our meetings became much more about the subtleties of design that lead to true client satisfaction with the end product (e.g.: the curvature of a rail as perceived from seat A12) instead of just the “big picture” moves (e.g.: how low can we make the balcony without destroying the view of everyone in the last row of the parterre). To use a theater production analogy, the potential to direct the nuance of an actor’s performance greatly expands once they’ve learned their lines. Once the fundamentals were taken care of, we could really go to town with making this theater the best it could be.

Xiqu Centre for Chinese Opera. Top: VR experience by Fisher Dachs, Bottom: Rendering by Bing Thom Architects

How did we get here? Why were we using VR at all? Let’s rewind.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Fisher Dachs Associates (FDA) President Joshua Dachs and Associate Principals Robert Campbell and Adam Huggard sought to hone their decision-making process and increase the visual information they could offer to a client when explaining design options. They developed a method of inputting all of the key parameters of a theater into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, et voilà: generating CAD sections, plans, and even 3D models was automated. “We wanted to develop as many design approaches as thoroughly and as quickly as possible for our clients,” says Dachs.

And so, for years at FDA this was the best method for testing and rapidly iterating and analyzing the results. Any seat in a hall could be selected and the view to the stage checked. This went a long way toward making every seat in the house the best it could be.

FDA’s program Extreme Sightlines © developed first in the 1990s, allows quick generation of 2D and 3D theater models

Fast forward to late 2012. I was a few months into my new job at FDA. It was around then that the very first Oculus Rift Development Kit entered Kickstarter and successfully raised $2.4 million. Everyone was talking about what this would mean for the future of video games. Even the developers limited the initial branding of the device, giving it the tagline “Step into the Game.” And while now VR is used for everything from medical intervention to personnel training, at the time many doubted VR could ultimately amount to anything more than a fad for gamers, let alone a serious disruptor to other industries.

I knew several others at the time who saw what I saw—the potential for this to revolutionize industries far outside of gaming, such as architecture. Brian Lonsway, Graduate Chair of the Syracuse University School of Architecture, saw its utility years ago. “I first brought VR headsets into the architecture studio during their ‘first wave’ in the late 1990’s. The technology transformed our students’ abilities to design and visualize, even though it was still quite inaccessible outside the research university. With both VR and AR technology now much more accessible, it has been great to re-introduce it in our graduate studios at Syracuse University not only as an optional flourish but a central part of a design workflow,” he said.

However, many fellow professionals had trouble getting their firm to adopt VR. Plenty of firms purchased the Oculus Rift DK1, but very few had the support or infrastructure to learn how to use video game engines like Unity3D and Unreal in order to take proper advantage of it.

Rather than pitching VR as a “new” technology that our company needed to adopt, I talked about VR as an extension of the workflow we had in place. I argued that we were already taking flat 2D views of seats, and the capacity for VR to actually make you feel like you were in those seats was the next logical step. Joshua Dachs agreed.

Early tests in Unity3D for the Oculus Rift DK1

In the world of architecture, you work with a surprising number of people who aren’t trained to visualize a space based on a plan, section, or even render. As designers, we may know exactly what a space will look like and why the design we’ve painstakingly developed is the best choice of many, but the onus is still on us to communicate that to clients, collaborators, and the general public. When I used to produce flat, 2D images of seat views (say, Row Q, Seat 23) it wasn’t uncommon for the conversation to become a Q&A about issues that did not focus on or further our discussion. For example, meet “Ted”:

Typical Seat View Study

Ted: “Wow, the stage looks really far away.”
Me: “It’s about 30 feet from the seat. It matches the plan and is really an optimal view from that location.”
Ted: “The head in front of me looks really close.”
Me: “The rows are three feet deep, which is standard, so it’s not any closer than normal.”
Ted: “That head really seems to be blocking my view.”
Me: “Right, from this position it is, but if you were physically in this seat, leaning a couple inches to the right or left would significantly alleviate that.”

When I produced architectural renders at my previous firms there were similar questions: “Is that the right scale?” “Where’s that light coming from?” “What am I looking at right now?”


Once a 3D model is setup for rendering, there’s only a few extra steps to take it to VR

When you drop someone in VR, those questions almost entirely disappear. The viewer feels like they’re in the space, and so they’re no longer asking you to clarify distance, scale, or context. They see it for themselves.

Beyond using VR for presentations, it’s also proven to be a remarkable design tool. Design meetings scheduled for two hours can end up taking less than half that time. Once everyone on the team puts on the headset, it’s easy to get to the same page. The conversation gets right to the design itself, as we’re far more aware of the state of its success than when using any other medium. Time is often lost when everyone is looking at 2D drawings and images and imagining in their own mind what the final result will be. VR lays out our creative choices naked to the world, but in that vulnerability comes clarity—better communication, decision-making, and ultimately, better designs.

To push and pull a design based on decisions made while “inside” of the space is remarkable. When presented with the full-scale version of their design for the very first time, every architect sees decisions they would like to change. If they’re seeing it for the first time after construction, it’s too late. In VR, it almost never is.

As the technology and tools have continued to improve, we’ve continued to push the boundaries of VR’s utility in the design process. We iterate more rapidly, cycling through many options on everything from architectural approach to material choices, all from within the same experience. We’ve seen VR bring confidence to everyone from clients to donors. And we’re not the only ones who have had success with these new tools. At ZGF Architects, Simon Manning took on the title of VR Specialist after he proved the value of having an employee dedicated to understanding and implementing immersive technology. “Once we began exploring the tech, we kept finding new ways to improve our process. At first it was about saving time and money. But now we’re getting a much clearer picture of the human experience of our spaces, and that’s worth so much more.”

Similarly, as I found myself creating more VR experiences for FDA, companies we were working with became more interested in these tools and workflows, particularly for non-theater projects. I began to make a variety of VR experiences and develop workflows aiming to make VR a part of the design process from conception to completion, sketching out ideas in VR, bringing those sketches into other programs to build them out, and then experiencing them in VR through every phase of a project. Thanks to the interest and success of these projects, members of FDA and I have formed a new company called Agile Lens: Immersive Design, specializing in tackling design problems that immersive technology like VR is uniquely suited to solve.

It’s an exciting time to be a designer, and there’s still enormous untapped opportunities for those willing to give VR a try. Christopher Nichols, Director of Chaos Group Labs and host of the popular CG Garage Podcast, hopes architects will create virtual spaces never intended to be built. “In the same way that you would hire an amazing architect to design a great sports stadium and attract a crowd, VR content creators should also hire architects to design great VR experiences.”

Soon we’ll be inside VR with collaborators across the world, having meetings and designing together. We’ll watch the entire construction process happen in VR and run complex algorithms to search for inefficiencies. VR reduces errors, saves money, communicates more clearly than any medium we’ve ever had access to—and did I mention it’s a ton of fun?

Top image: Agile Lens: Immersive Design, a VR consultancy focused on design solutions
Bottom image: Still from a VR experience from inside of FXFowle’s Statue of Liberty Museum, due to open in 2019

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